Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on January 13, 2011
By Robert H. Shmerling, M.D.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Perhaps you have heard the terms "hypertension" or "hyperventilation." These are terms used commonly outside of a doctor's office. But, how about "hyperhidrosis," "hyperemesis" or "hyperthyroidism"? All of these are medical terms using the same prefix, "hyper" it means elevated, increased or too much of whatever follows in the term. So, for the examples above, here's how they translate:
- Hypertension elevated (or high) blood pressure, one of the most common medical conditions, and a well-established risk factor for heart disease and stroke
- Hyperventilation rapid breathing, as might occur with extreme anxiety or after sudden exertion
- Hyperhidrosis excessive sweating
- Hyperemesis excessive vomiting, as may occur in hyperemesis gravidarum, that is, the excessive vomiting during pregnancy, which complicates about one in 200 pregnancies
- Hyperthyroidism an overactive (or hyperactive) thyroid, which makes too much thyroid hormone; this problem can lead to weight loss, fast heart rate and other medical problems
In my medical dictionary, there are more than 11 pages of terms starting with "hyper" (beginning with hyperacid meaning increased acid and ending with hypervolia, meaning increased water content). Having too much of something is a common problem in a variety of diseases. On the other hand, having too little of something (for which the prefix is "hypo") is also common some of those conditions will be addressed in a later installment.
Other common medical terms using "hyper" include:
- Hypercalcemia an elevated level of calcium in the blood
- Hypercholesterolemia an elevation of cholesterol, a common condition that can significantly increase the risk of heart disease
- Hyperpigmentation increased color (or pigment) in the skin, a common development after any rash or skin inflammation
- Hyperthermia markedly elevated temperature; another term for a high fever
- Hyperuricemia an elevated level of uric acid in the blood, a risk factor for gout
These are examples of how your doctor is speaking English (though it may not sound that way) but using terms that rarely appear in other settings. Many medical terms have a common beginning (prefix) that is particularly useful when describing a medical condition; similarly, others have common word endings (suffixes). Learning a few of these will help you decipher some of the code in your doctor's terminology.
Of course, there are nonmedical uses of this same prefix: hyperbole, hype, and hyperactive are a few examples.
The Bottom Line
If you are not sure what your doctor is saying, ask for an explanation. It is not hyperbole or hypercritical to say that hyperemesis and hyperhidrosis are hypertechnical compared to simpler (and more useful) terms. That is, when speaking with one another, the language used by health care professionals and health care receivers should be the same. If it isn't, gently remind your doctor to speak your language.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.